Beyond the Gridiron: Nick Saban’s Enduring Influence at the Alabama Catholic Center

Where Coach Goes After the Game: How the legendary football coach has played a critical role in helping the university’s faith community grow.

Faith and football: showing their school spirit
Faith and football: showing their school spirit (photo: Bama Catholic)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When Father Tom Ackerman watched University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban support 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram at the televised award ceremony in New York, he assumed that Coach Saban would not be at Sunday Mass the next morning. But much to his surprise, there was Coach Saban and his wife, Terry, sitting in their usual pew at St. Francis of Assisi parish.

Saban recently retired as the head football coach at the University of Alabama. During his storied career, Saban led Alabama to six National Championships during his 17 years as head coach.

Off the turf, however, Saban has helped the school thrive in another area: Catholic evangelization. Saban, a devout Catholic and weekly Massgoer, and wife Terry have been a driving force behind the university’s Catholic ministry, Bama Catholic, and its affiliate parish, St. Francis of Assisi.

“It is very evident that the Catholic faith is a priority for Coach Saban,” Father Ackerman, pastor at St. Francis of Assisi, told the Register. “He goes to Sunday Mass and has helped with all of our different capital campaigns, and their foundation makes a contribution to our operating fund every year. We are so appreciative of all that the Sabans have done for us.” 

Bama Catholic Father Tom
Father Tom Ackerman is the shepherd of Bama Catholic.(Photo: The Narrative/courtesy of Bama Catholic) 2023 The Narrative, all rights reserved.

In 2013, the Catholic Center announced an ambitious capital campaign, unveiling plans to build a new church, student center and perpetual adoration chapel. After it was announced, the Sabans supported the campaign, making a significant contribution to the $1.9-million project.

Bama Catholic opened the Saban Catholic Student Center in 2016. The center continues to provide Catholic students with a place to gather, relax and learn about the faith.

Bama Catholic students
Saban Catholic Student Center is a gathering spot for Catholic students at Alabama.(Photo: Bama Catholic)

“The Saban Catholic Center has had a huge impact on our students; it’s a safe place for students to land,” said Father Ackerman. “Our student center is open from early morning to late in the evening so that students can come and study, interact with one another, share about the faith, and just relax.”

Shortly after the center opened, Saban shared with EWTN News that he and Terry felt that it was important to help fund the new Catholic center so that students “have a place where they can go socialize and develop the kind of relationships that might be helpful to them and their faith development.”

Just as Saban hoped, many students have found a home at Bama Catholic. For Davis Lagarde, a junior biology major, this community helped him discover the truth of the Catholic faith. 

Born and raised Episcopalian, Lagarde hoped to join Alabama’s Episcopalian student center but it was closed due to COVID restrictions. So he stopped by Bama Catholic and quickly found a home at the center. 

“The Catholic center is just a great place to be able to make friends, get to know people,” said Lagarde. “It’s a place to make quality friends and make real connections; it turns into a home away from home.” 

But it’s not just the center’s physical presence that has grown to accommodate the increase in student involvement. To promote this growth, Bama Catholic has expanded the number of ministers on campus. In 2015, the center welcomed a team of missionaries from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, an international ministry that seeks to evangelize on college campuses through an emphasis on relational ministry. 

Since 2015, the campus has also added three new full-time positions to its ministry team. This past summer, Taylor Vincent began serving as the center’s full-time campus minister. Vincent has witnessed the impact that the center has on students. 

“So many of our students are on fire for the faith, and it doesn’t take long for them to get immersed in the culture of prayer and the sacraments that we have,” said Vincent. 

Since he began as a student in 2015, Vincent has seen more and more students participate in the center’s life and offerings. According to Vincent and Father Ackerman, more than 700 students attend Sunday Mass, close to 600 students partake in weekly FOCUS Bible studies; and weekly dinners and other center offerings, from adoration to fellowship and trivia nights, often draw hundreds of students. 

Vincent, however, has a unique perspective on the impact the Catholic center can and has had on students. He attributes his own love of Christ and passion for ministry to the formation he received at the center when he was a student at the University of Alabama between 2015 and 2019.

Growing up Catholic, Vincent knew what the Church taught and attended weekly Mass, but he felt like he did not know Christ in a personal way. Through his involvement with Bama Catholic, Vincent encountered Christ in a radical way, which instilled in him a passion for ministry. 

“Bama Catholic really set me on fire for the Lord and gave me a desire to listen to his call for my life,” said Vincent. “It really impacted me, in that while I was there, I knew I wanted to do ministry; I wanted to be a part of the work that the Church is doing. I didn’t know if it was going to specifically lead to a job here at St. Francis, but it definitely set things in motion for wanting to be a part of the Lord’s work in his Church.” 

But for Vincent and Father Ackerman, the most beautiful witness of student engagement has occurred in the perpetual adoration chapel, which opened in 2016. 

“Since the perpetual adoration chapel was finished, there’s just been a huge shift towards students deepening their prayer lives,” said Vincent. “It’s really beautiful to see how many students come to the chapel at all hours.”

Bama Catholics, though, are not keeping the joy of the faith to themselves. Instead, they are seeking to proclaim the faith to a campus inundated with the vices associated with college life. Every year, they hold a two-hour-plus Eucharistic procession to bring Christ to all parts of the Southeastern Conference/Big 12 campus. 

Bama Catholic adoration
Students adore Christ on campus.(Photo: Bama Catholic)

“The Eucharistic procession, for me, is one of the most powerful things we do at Bama Catholic,” said Ella Evans, a junior business major. “We bring Christ all around our campus; to walk with him through fraternity row and past all of the sorority houses is a really powerful experience, not just for all those that see us, but also for the participants — because we are literally walking with Christ as a Church.” 

After he was confirmed, Lagarde found another outlet for evangelization within his fraternity, Tau Kappa Epsilon; Lagarde has found joy in sharing Christ with his fraternity brothers. 

“It is a special mission field here, reaching out to those who live in fraternity and sorority houses,” said Lagarde. “We really encourage each other to reach out to people in those houses and evangelize to them in a very human way through inviting them to come to the center with us.” 

Bama Catholic Main
Students gather at the Saban Catholic Student Center at the University of Alabama.(Photo: Bama Catholic)

The center has even tapped into its celebrity parishioner’s fame to invite students into the community, said Lagarde: “When we are tabling in the student union or after Mass, we pass out stickers that say ‘Where the coach goes after the game’ because after every game, Coach Saban will be at Sunday Mass — no matter what.”  

But for the students, Saban is more than a recruitment ploy, he is a witness. Every week, he shows students that even a six-time championship coach needs the sacraments and a relationship with Jesus Christ. 

“That Coach Saban, who is this big football coach with this huge legacy, has a faith that he practices is so inspiring,” said Evans. “Seeing someone who is a celebrity that is consistent about practicing the Catholic faith is beautiful because it can be really easy for public figures to claim that they are Christian or Catholic and not care about it, so to have his witness to the faith is a powerful example for myself and other students.”